’60 Minutes’ and the Ethics of Breeding Out Disease

dnaSunday night, on 60 Minutes Norah O’Donnell looked into the reproductive genetics industry.  The entire show’s transcript can be read here.  O’Donnell primarily interacted with two figures, Dr. Mark Hughes and Lee Silver.  Dr. Hughes is a pioneer in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and Silver has patented technology that produces what he calls ‘digital babies’.

Euphemisms and Reproductive (Eu)Genetics.

O’Donnell interviews Dr. Hughes with mouth-agape as she and her audience marvel at the way his practice can predict breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, colon cancer, and a host of other diseases just by testing one cell drawn from a human zygote. Hughes’ team is able to search for “typos” among 6 million “letters” in human DNA and to detect any disease that comes from single mutations in the human genome.  O’Donnell touts:

The science of genetics has gotten so sophisticated so quickly that it can be used to not only treat serious diseases but prevent thousands of them well before pregnancy even begins.  Diseases that have stalked families for generations – like breast cancer – are being literally stopped in their tracks. Scientists can do that by creating and testing embryos in a lab, then implanting into a mother’s womb only the ones which appear healthy. While the whole field is loaded with controversy, those who are worried about passing on defective and potentially dangerous genes see the opportunity to breed out disease.

It may be surprising to hear that this scientific field now called ‘reproductive genetics’ is actually a re-branding of a field that flourished in the early 20th century–eugenics.  Hughes and Silver are the scientific grandsons of eugenicists like C.W. Saleeby, Francis Galton, and Margaret Sanger.  Eugenics sought to practically apply the logical conclusions of an evolutionary worldview for the betterment of the human race.  It primarily sought progress through intentional human reproduction and prevention.

Treating Disease in the Womb?

Unlike Dr. Hughes and his team, early 20th century eugenicists did not have the scientific capabilities to do DNA testing on embryos.  However, modern reproductive genetics and the eugenics movement share the same philosophical conviction: a diseased or defective life is not a life worth living.  Better to prevent the existence of “defective” persons than to suffer in a world full of them.

O’Donnell probed Dr. Hughes about this perspective: “So are we to trust you to set the boundaries?”  Who is to determine which persons’ lives are worth living?  Hughes acknowledged the embarrassing conundrum with this quixotic response: “That’s the question. Should it be some group sitting around a mahogany table or should it be all left up to the patient?”

O’Donnell’s question digs below the euphemism repeated over and over in the special–that Hughes’ team is “treating disease”–and gets to the foundational issue: Hughes and his team are ending thousands and thousands of defective humans.  What Hughes and Co. have discovered is not how to treat genetic defects but how to identify genetic defects.  By “treating disease”, Hughes really means killing any embryos he deems defective.

What is presented on 60 Minutes as incredible, albeit controversial, scientific progress, is really just another application of our modern culture of death.  There is no healing.  Only death.  The weak are weeded out and killed.  Only the strong are allowed to live.  Simply put, Hughes and his team use genetic mapping to perform very accurate selective abortion.

Separating Sex and Reproduction.

Lee Silver and Dr. Hughes both express the opinion that voluntary sexual reproduction is actually a very risky prospect: “We all throw genetic dice when we have children (Hughes)…I see a future in which people will not use sex to reproduce. That’s a very dangerous thing to do (Silver).”

Again, this trumpet has been blasted by the eugenics movement dating all the way back to the mid-1800s.  The thinking goes: Reproductive rights are too dangerous to entrust to the general public.  If the human race is to improve and progress, we cannot let the huddled masses reproduce willy-nilly.  (There is an explicit racism in early eugenicists that has since been well hidden but it is still there).  Silver proposes that reproduction will eventually be completely given to scientists.

I say “completely”, because there are already thousands of Americans each year who voluntarily relegate reproduction to the science lab.  In our Christian culture it is not uncommon to hear about IVF, AI, and a host of other technologies in which reproduction requires the participation of a scientist.  Besides the fact that human children are typically discarded as a part of many of these processes, we also must consider whether a world where sex and reproduction are completely detached is a world that honors God.

Building Our Own Tower of Babel.

In many ways, this issue reminds me of the story from Genesis 11.  Hughes and Silver believe they can genetically engineer humanity into the clouds.  Upward progress is unstoppable–if we leave it to the scientists.  Eventually we will be able to eliminate every defect and deficiency in the human race.  We will be gods.  We will hoist ourselves into the skies and claim the glory we deserve.

However, there is no thought given to the millions of human lives that are being trampled upon in the name of science.  As Christians, we have to stand up against an industry that is essentially creating millions of orphans in the science lab.  The only children deemed worthy of parents are those whose genomes happened to map correctly.

Scientific might does not make right.  As our scientific Tower of Babel climbs into the skies, it can only end in one way: confusion, pain, and separation.  In the quest to overcome death, our top scientists have in fact created an industry that is propelled forward by murder and careless contempt for human life.

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